Pittsburgh clergy look to Chanukah for light and hope
ChanukahFirst Night is Dec. 7

Pittsburgh clergy look to Chanukah for light and hope

The world is fractured, but spiritual guides say the cracks allow light in

Local spiritual guides are encouraging people to 'look to the light' this Chanukah. (Photo by Len Radin via Flickr at https://rb.gy/mjzrpi)
Local spiritual guides are encouraging people to 'look to the light' this Chanukah. (Photo by Len Radin via Flickr at https://rb.gy/mjzrpi)

On the first night of Chanukah, three blessings are typically said.

The first one praises the Ruler of the Universe for “commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.” The second prayer offers additional praise for “performing wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season.” The third blessing, the Shehecheyanu, thanks God for “giving us life, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.”

With the first night of Chanukah set for Dec. 7, Rabbi Elchonon Friedman is fixated on the second blessing.

“The miracles we are seeing now are more evident than what the people saw during the time of Chanukah,” said Friedman, rabbi at Bnai Emunah Chabad.

Nearly 2,200 years ago, during the time of Chanukah, two miracles unfolded. The first was that a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated a larger Syrian-Greek army. The second miracle was that after the war, a small jug of oil in the desecrated Holy Temple provided eight days of light from the menorah — seven days longer than that amount of oil should have yielded.

The Jewish people are a “nation of light and a nation of miracles,” Friedman said. “It’s important during Chanukah to focus on that light. Our greatest blessings come from the light, from the light of Torah and tradition in our lives.”

The holiday’s relevancy is “brighter” this year, Temple David’s Rabbi Barbara Symons said.

With Israel’s war against Hamas reaching the two-month mark, Chanukah serves as a historic and hopeful lens.

“We hope for miracles, and we hope that the few will overcome the many,” Symons said. “We hope that all hostages will be freed and healthy, that Palestinian civilians will have leadership that cares for them and seeks a two-state solution, that Israel will not be targeted by so many other countries and institutions, and that light will come.”

Symons will share those messages at Temple David’s religious school, from the pulpit, within her home and as she visits nursing homes and senior living centers. In each setting, she will convey that as the Jewish people return to the story and symbolism of Chanukah, “We should seek light, not only physical light but the light of joy,” she said.

Rabbi Shlomo Silverman of Chabad of Carnegie Mellon University is counting down the days until the holiday’s start.

“The greater the darkness, the greater the opportunity for light,” he said. “And this year, with so much going on, we need that extra boost of Chanukah light.”

Jewish students on campus often turn to Silverman and Chabad for advice, meals and programs. Given Chanukah’s rich story and ripe messaging, Silverman is eager to celebrate with them.

As opposed to years past, school is in session during Chanukah. And, because of the overlap, Silverman is planning holiday-related events at Chabad and around Oakland.

He noted Chabad’s recent purchase of a nine-foot menorah. With an ability to completely illuminate, “it will be exciting for students to see the menorah while walking to class on campus,” he said.

Chanukah is predicated on miracles, but joy is also an important part of the holiday, Beth Samuel Jewish Center’s Cantor Rena Shapiro said.

Since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, it’s been difficult for many following news of the war to find joy, but there are sprinkles of hope, she said.

Shapiro shares glimmers of optimism through weekly notes to congregants.

One message, she said, is to look to Israel and its commitment to simcha (joy). Pop-up weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and a host of other celebrations have continued despite the war.

“If we are feeling down, we need to take a cue from them,” she said. “This is the darkest part of the year. The days are short. There’s darkness in the world, but it’s important to know there is light in Israel, and it’s important to know we can be the light for others.”

She implores others to be kind and helpful.

“Relatives in Israel have told me they have a lot of light shining in their hearts. We should do the same.”

One feature of the holiday is that as Chanukah progresses, the number of candles, and the amount of light, increases.

“This should be a model for us and the light in our neshama (soul),” Shapiro said.

Jews in Pittsburgh are thousands of miles away from war, but there are ways to help. “We can donate, we can keep going and being the light onto the nations,” Shapiro said.

The musician Leonard Cohen used to sing, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Now is the moment to cling to that lyric and the Chanukah story, Shapiro said.

“Our world is fractured, but those cracks will let some light in,” she said. “And with the light is tikvah (hope).” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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